Last week, Elon Musk astonished planet Earth again by successfully launching his Falcon Heavy, the most powerful reusable rocket in current use. This exploit has been viewed by some unkind minds as a smokescreen to cover up the Tesla company’s lacklustre results.
That notwithstanding, in a few years, Space Explorer has completed a hell of a journey and helped reduce launch costs. Musk’s early interest in space – having read “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” at 14 – can be traced back to a meeting in 2001 with a group called “The Mars Society” founded by Robert Zubrin. They planned to send mice into orbit around Mars, but Musk was already thinking big and wanted not only to land them on the red planet but bring them back again too. There’s a very telling passage in Ashlee Vance’s biography of Musk “The more he thought about space, the most important its exploration seemed to him. He felt as if the public had lost some of its ambition and hope for the future. The average person might see space exploration as a waste of time and effort and rib him for talking about the subject, but Musk thought about interplanetary travel in a very earnest way. He wanted to inspire the masses and reinvigorate their passion for science, conquest, and the promise of technology. His fears that mankind had lost much of its will to push the boundaries were reinforced one day when Musk went to the NASA website. He’d expected to find a detailed plan for exploring Mars and instead he found bupkis … Musk had always believed that the founding ideas of America were linked with humanity’s desire to explore “
Reading these sentences, suddenly the image of the robot driving the Tesla in space makes more sense.
Let’s go back for a moment over Musk’s extraordinary journey to the launch pad. After the idea of breeding mice, Musk thought of installing a miniature greenhouse up there. Then, as he became more and more interested in the subject, he ended up calculating that it was possible to drastically reduce the costs of space travel. That was the aim of founding the company Space Explorer. As a christening gift he endowed it with $100 Million (money that Musk raised from the PayPal IPO). It’s worth noting that it was only at the fourth launch attempt that the Falcon 1 was able to reach orbit, when the company was about to go bankrupt. Following this success, on December 23rd, 2008, NASA decided to entrust Musk with a $1.6 billion contract to carry cargo for the International Space Station. In 2011, Musk embarked on a reusable rocket project. After experiencing several further failures, he managed to get a rocket back and even land it on a platform in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean in 2015. And over this period, Musk succeeded in getting a “Journey to Mars” section added to the Nasa website. We also know that he dreams of building a city on Mars, and even thinks it would be fantastic to die there.
There is plenty of criticism of Musk for having fun at the taxpayer’s expense and benefiting from an exclusive contract with NASA and the US protectionism which rules that, according to the current laws, national agency launches must be operated by American companies. So, SpaceX can benefit by double charging NASA or the army.
Recalling Musk’s talent for sales, Peter Thiel, a long-time friend and co-founder of PayPal, in talking about Tesla mentions Musk’s talent for successfully leveraging the US government’s commitment to subsidise Cleantech in 2009 : “In 2009, it was easy to think that the government would continue to support Cleantech: ‘green jobs’ were a political priority, and federal funds were already earmarked, and even more likely to pass cap-and-trade legislation. But where others saw generous subsidies that could flow indefinitely, Tesla CEO Elon Musk rightly saw a one-time-only opportunity » But we can’t reduce Musk’s career to an ability to access public funds, although even if that’s all it was, it must still be recognised that his imperial projects drive progress in all the sectors to which he turns his interest. So, if we return to the conquest of space, as noted by Fabien Goubet in Le Temps, “His main rocket, the Falcon 9, is certainly not a laughing matter for its competitors. It has completed 18 missions in 2017 (compared with 11 for Arianespace), and is aiming for thirty this year. An astonishing, even arrogant success.”
Also, as this scientific journalist notes, it is the satellite industry that is driving the rocket sector, and a new generation of satellites has just arrived on the market that will stimulate competition between launchers. There are now two types of space adventurers: “billionaire disruptors” and traditional launchers, such as, for example, Ariane Space, as well as two rocket models: single-use launchers and reusable launchers. So, which of these two solutions is the cheapest?: “Elon Musk, with his usual bravado, forecast a cost reduction of 70%. SpaceX CEO Gwynne Shotwell has revised the figure downwards to 30%. Finally, in the shopping catalogue, launches with a “used” Falcon 9 in the end only cost 10% less at the moment. But prices should continue to fall in the US. Private American companies control the entire production chain and come with rock bottom prices, while Ariane is manufactured in several European countries.”
So are we saying that European leadership is threatened? Under pressure from new solutions launched by Musk and the other billionaires (Bezos, Branson) the Ariane model will be forced to evolve and improve its performance (use of 3D printing for the production of engine parts, design of reusable solutions for Ariane 6, cost optimisation and research into cheaper solutions, new engines by 2030 …) The journalist concludes his analysis “This year, Ariane 5 will continue its launches going up against SpaceX reusable rockets. By 2020, its replacement will therefore have some serious catching up to do against the American competition. Not to mention that other players are working hard to stay in the market: the American United Launch Alliance wants to launch a new rocket, Vulcan, in 2019. The Russian Protons are still in the game, not to mention the Chinese and Indian launchers. Finally, Virgin’s director, Richard Branson, cherishes a project to send small rockets into orbit from a Boeing 747 via his Virgin Orbit subsidiary. Just another billionaire…. ”
If Elon Musk went to the ESA website today he would no doubt be disappointed not to find a “Mars” section. But is that the agency’s goal? In the book “100 Words of Europe”, we read “The European Space Agency (ESA) is an intergovernmental agency comprising 18 states (…) Founded in 1975, its mission is to coordinate the work of its members and to share their space capabilities in the areas of human spaceflight, launchers, Earth observation, the planet’s local space environment, the solar system, and to develop satellite technologies and services, such as Galileo, and to promote European industries (…) Article 189 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union mentions for the first time a ‘European Space Policy’, to be developed in conjunction with the European Space Agency, which has allowed it to reach a leading global technological and commercial ranking This quote inevitably raises the question: could the ESA continue to develop like this by involving industrialists from different countries, or will it one day have to outsource disruptive innovation to wealthy individuals? The answer to this question is far from obvious knowing on the one hand that these dreamers are likely to go faster at a lower cost, but they also tend to have ambitions to go further, which could end up just as expensive … The debate remains open.
 “The more he thought about space, the most important its exploration seemed to him. He felt as if the public had lost some of its ambition and hope for the future. The average person might see space exploration as a waste of time and effort and rib him for talking about the subject, but Musk thought about interplanetary travel in a very earnest way. He wanted to inspire the masses and reinvigorate their passion for science, conquest, and the promise of technology. His fears that mankind had lost much of its will to push the boundaries were reinforced one day when Musk went to the NASA website. He’d expected to find a detailed plan for exploring Mars and instead he found bupkis » Elon Musk, Ashlee Vance, Virgin Books, p.101
 Peter Thiel and Blake Masters, Zero to One, Virgin Books, p.167
 Jean-Paul Betbèze and Jean-Dominique Giuliani, The 100 words of Europe, Press Universitaire de France, 2011, p.66